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While the Bombs Fall
the bombs fall in Lebanon, I’m teaching a two-week course in permaculture:
regenerative, ecological design, with a schedule so demanding that I find it hard
to check email every day, let alone watch the news. But it comes in, between lesser
messages about leaks in the watering system in the garden and flight cancellations:
pictures of dead children on the road. I feel horrified, angry, frustrated, powerless…all
the things I’m used to feeling about the situation, but more so. I try to
write something in the spare moments when my teaching partner Penny is covering
rain catchment or graywater systems, but all I keep writing, over and over, is
“Killing children is wrong.” That sees so self-evident and banal that
I can’t quite bring myself to send it out. Or rather, it doesn’t seem
to add much to a discussion in which the decision makers are so convinced that
killing our children is very, very wrong, but killing their children is the Path
While the Congress and Senate are voting their support for Israel’s actions,
I am teaching systems theory and strategy, including an essay by Donella Meadows,
“Nine Ways to Intervene in a System (in increasing order of effectiveness.)
The least effective way, she says, is by changing amounts. Please, General, can
we drop fewer bombs? Can we keep it proportional? Could we scale down to killing
just maybe two of their children for every one of ours, instead of ten?
The situation itself is a perfect example of what she calls a positive feedback
loop. I find the term confuses people, as there is often nothing positive about
it. I call it a self-reinforcing cycle. Whichever, it means a situation in which
the more you have of something the more you get, and the more you need. You kill
some of my children so I kill more of yours, so you kill more of mine, so I kill
even more of yours.
Self-reinforcing cycles are engines of change, for better or worse. They get more
and more extreme, until either some new constraint enters to impose a new equilibrium,
or they crash. Hurricanes suck up energy from the heat in the sea, and grow bigger,
sucking more energy, which makes them bigger still, until they hit land and blow
themselves out. Addicts keep taking more of what they’re addicted to, until
they hit bottom, whether the addiction is to alcohol or heroin or military intervention.
This quality of systems does not bode well—either for the children of Beirut
or those of Haifa. Europe and the UN might make some weak attempts to intervene,
but as long as the U.S. is cheering the Israeli government on, no serious constraints
will be imposed. And why shouldn’t we cheer them on, when Israel’s
addiction to force as a solution is the mirror of ours? We’re the big guy
and the small guy, standing each other drinks at the pub and throwing the chairs
at anyone who threatens us, until we smash the place.
It is this very self-reinforcing cycle that keeps power in the hands of the neo-cons,
whose answer to every fear and insecurity is more force. Force which creates more
fear, which generates more violence, which requires more force to keep down. It’s
an inherent aspect of being caught in this sort of system that as it begins to
spiral out of control, and starts to break apart, the only solution you can see
is more of the same. An alcoholic gets fired for drinking on the job, and drinks
more to forget. Iraq is not working out well for Bush and the neocons, so bring
in more troops, or expand the war—Lebanon, Syria, Iran.
You can’t change a self-reinforcing system by changing amounts. Recovering
alcoholics know this, generals and politicians don’t. Try to limit yourself
to one drink before dinner, and somehow you still end up behind the wheel of the
car that careens into the bus full of schoolchildren on the road. Tell yourself
that you are using a measured, limited response for well-thought out political
aims, and you still end up with blackened torsos and the severed limbs of infants
in smoking piles on the motorway.
Here’s some other things we know about these cycles—they are expensive.
They consume resources. Drinking up the children’s milk money down at the
local. Starving every social program to fund our military. And when they crash,
they often fall hardest on the undeserving. The drunk behind the wheel rolls out
of the crushed car, unharmed, while the family of five lies dead. The policy makers
are not cringing in tenements as bombs fall, or crying over the bleeding body
of their most beloved child. Nor are most of those who support the policies. Yet.
To change the system, you need to change the paradigm, the way you frame the situation
and think about it, the deep assumptions that shape your viewpoint. That’s
Donella Meadows’ most effective way to intervene—changing the world
view and the constructs that support the system. It’s also, generally, a
hard and painful process.
A new paradigm, a new construct of self and world, goes against everything we
know and believe. If I’m telling myself that I’m a fun-loving, party
kind of a gal—how painful to instead admit that I’m an alcoholic!
If I’m justifying the deaths of children by telling myself that I’m
bringing democracy to the region, or safeguarding my sister’s children in
Hadera, or fulfilling God’s plan, how painful to look at the broken bodies
on the pavement and say, “I did that. I have blood on my hands.”
I’m thinking about one of the many fruitless arguments I’ve had about
the issue, this one with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi’s wife, shortly after I’d
returned from doing solidarity work with the nonviolent Palestinian resistance
in Gaza and the West Bank. I tried to describe to her what I’d seen in that
bullet-riddled, shell-shocked land, the ongoing, everyday horrors and humiliations
and frustrations, the houses bulldozed, the farmlands confiscated, the lives blunted
and stunted and blasted into oblivion, and at the end she said to me:
“But we’re good. So if we’re doing it, it must be good.”
That’s one hard paradigm to shift, because there is nowhere to go from that
pinnacle but down, no change we can make that doesn’t require us to face
the possibility that maybe we are bad, or at the very least, that we are good
people doing some bad things. From that vantage point, of course any critique,
no matter how measured, seems anti-Semitic, an assault on that basic self-definition
of Essential Goodness.
While the killing escalates, I am teaching about soil. How to feed the life of
the soil, how to encourage and nurture the worms and the beneficial bacteria and
fungi and other soil organisms. How a healthy soil will grow healthy plants, that
can resist pests.
Industrial agriculture, in contrast, is based in the same exact paradigm as our
Iraq policy, one that was succinctly expressed in a bumper sticker my first husband
applied to his van shortly before we broke up: “Force, It Works!”
So, if corn borers are attacking your crop, blast it with insecticides. Kill the
bastards! Are there weeds among the fields? Zap them with roundup. Root feeding
nematodes, perchance, below ground? Blanket the whole thing in plastic, and gas
it with methyl bromide. Force—it works, for a while, perhaps for short term
goals. But force is costly. And, whether we’re employing force against bugs
or bacteria or human beings, force breeds resistance. And so insects that survive
the onslaught of the pesticides breed young that are not affected. We up the doses,
and breed more and more resistant pests, which require more insecticides to kill,
in another self-reinforcing cycle. The helpful insects, the predators that might
have kept the pests in balance, are wiped out. And the residues of poison remain,
in the soil and in the crops themselves. Human beings are not insects or bacteria.
The human resistance that force breeds is not in the genes, but in hearts and
minds. And so the bombing of Beirut breeds rockets falling on Haifa and airplane
bombers in London, and all the assaults on South Lebanon, the bombs and blown-up
bridges and armed teenage boys in uniform on the ground will breed more rockets
yet, more suicide bombs of the future, more death in retaliation. And the devotion
to force is itself a toxin, poisoning the soil of Israeli society, starving its
own social programs, warping the very soul and ethics of the religion it purports
How do we get out of this mess? What would a regenerative paradigm look like as
a policy? If compost, worm castings and plants that feed beneficial bugs are the
gardening alternative to chemical warfare, what would be the political parallel?
From a purely self-interested, Israeli point of view, a policy maker coming from
a regenerative paradigm might say:
“We can never stamp our hatred, but let us not create habitat that favors
its growth. Instead, let us nurture health wherever we find it, and create conditions
that let flourish those who favor peace.”
So, in the nineties, Israel could have said, “We have a small window here,
when the Palestinians have settled for less than they could have demanded. Let
us move quickly to establish a Palestinian state, with true areas of self determination
for its people. If the Occupation is a running sore, inflaming rage and hatred
throughout the Arab world and undermining our moral credibility, how do we swiftly
end it and transform the region into a place of opportunity and hope? Where can
we support people’s legitimate dreams and aspirations? How do we support
the health of the region’s actual soil, the vitality of its crops, the abundance
of its markets, the excellence of its Universities? How do we create such flourishing
abundance that this region becomes a shining model for the whole Middle East?”
Instead, Israel built settlements, began a long term program of encroachment on
the tiny territory allocated to the Palestinians, and maintained an Occupation
backed by force. When Abbas was elected, Israel could have said, “How do
we give him victories and real gains that will strengthen his own people’s
allegiance? And if corruption runs rampant in the Palestinian Authority, then
where are there leaders of integrity we can ally with? And if Hammas is winning
over the people with its social programs, how do we feed a healthy economy so
that they become unnecessary?”
Instead, Israel continued to build a wall which confiscates huge amounts of Palestinian
land without compensation, destroys the very communities which historically have
been most friendly to Israel, unilaterally ‘withdrew’ from Gaza while
keeping it surrounded, an isolated, open-air prisons with its resources destroyed
and its factions inflamed—creating a perfect breeding habitat for yet more
There are a hundred other missed opportunities. And there will be more. But the
longer the cycle goes on, the more damage is done, and the harder it is to stop.
Am I ‘blaming’ Israel unfairly? Couldn’t Hezbollah just stop
shooting rockets, and the Palestinian factions stop bombing?
Yes, certainly they could, and it would be good if they did. Children would live
who otherwise would die.
When we’re caught in a self-reinforcing cycle, it’s a fairly useless
exercise to ask, “Who started it?” Or to debate whether one side or
the other has the ‘right to defend itself’ by continuing the cycle.
Far better to ask, “Who is in position to stop this cycle?”
And it is Israel, the occupier of the territory, the fourth largest military power
in the world, that sets the conditions of the region, that has the power to create
a habitat where violence flourishes, or peace is favored.
And I admit that I want Israel to act as the moral agent it claims to be. I’m
a Jew who was raised with the dream of Israel, as a safe place after the Holocaust,
as a refuge in that visa-denying world which sent boatloads of my people back
to their deaths, as a place where we could finally, after two thousand years,
be ourselves, in our own home. Among the many casualties of this war is all that
was good in that dream.
Because of the pennies I saved as a child to buy trees for the promised land,
because of the songs I grew up singing, because of the deep well that was carved
in my heart for that dream that now spews anguish and blood, I have the right
ot an accounting from those who have replaced the God of Justice with the God
The place has a history of great prophets and lousy kings. There is nothing more
Jewish than thundering at the policy makers, saying “Jahweh and Allah and
all good-hearted people agree: killing children is wrong. Just plain wrong, and
when you do it you have left the Path of Righteousness. The cost of force is too
high—it includes your soul.”
Even as the bombs fall, there are people choosing to come from new assumptions.
They are the Palestinians of the villages where the wall is confiscating their
farmland, choosing nonviolent means of struggle, returning day after day to demonstrations
in which they get beaten, tear-gassed, arrested. They are the Israelis and internationals
who cross borders to stand with them, saying, “We are not ‘Palestinians’
and “Israelis’, we are people together struggling against injustice.
They are the Women in Black, who stand in silent vigil for peace, year after year,
fleeing Katusha rockets and returning back to their stand for peace. They are
organizers of cross-cultural dialogues, soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied
Territories or to kill civilians, youth who refuse to don the explosives belt.
That these people still exist, that they somehow grow out of the blasted, toxic
soil of the Middle East, gives us some reason to hope. In spite of the million
missed opportunities, the oceans of spilled blood, the escalation of stupid policies,
the situation is not yet utterly without hope.
But what can we do, we who are not policy makers or generals or Queens of the
Middle East, who are simply ordinary people of compassion, wringing our hands
in front of the TV set. Every day, I hear people ask, “What can we do that
will be effective?”
And for once, I can’t think of a damn thing. Never has political action
felt so futile.
But I think about the advice the great war journalist Robert Fisk received, for
surviving decades in Lebanon and other war zones. “Do something,”
he was told. “Don’t do nothing.”
So do something. While we’re waiting for the effective thing, do something
even if it seems small and futile. Write your representatives. Go to the demonstration,
or organize one. Educate yourself more deeply, then talk to someone who has less
information. Stand in vigil with the Women in Black. Some of the founders of the
International Solidarity Movement in Palestine are organizing nonviolent civil
resistance in Lebanon. Join them, or support them. Pray to those Gods who may
secretly resent being cast as child killers.
Do something. We don’t know what the effective thing will be, may never
know. But if we do nothing, we will surely have no impact.
And what do we say? How do you stop a vicious cycle? Just stop. Stop now. Don’t
wait until the enemy is utterly defeated, because your every effort to defeat
them strengthens the forces that created them. Just stop. Not tomorrow, when our
position is stronger. Not the day after, when you have neutralized more territory.
The longer the cycle continues, the worse the crash will be. Just stop. Stop now.
Come from a new paradigm. Feed the soil of the Holy Land with something other
than blood. Cherish all children, ours and theirs.
Some other good websites to check out:
International Solidarity Movement:
Women in Black:
Jewish Voice For Peace:
For on the spot reports from Lebanon:
to post, forward, and reprint this article for non-commercial purposes. All
other rights reserved.
Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of The Earth Path, as
well as Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising, The Fifth
Sacred Thing; and eight other books on feminism, politics and earth-based
spirituality. She teaches Earth
Activist Trainings that combine permaculture design and activist skills,
and works with the RANT trainer’s collective, www.rantcollective.net
that offers training and support for mobilizations around global justice and
Copyright (c) 2006 by Starhawk. All rights reserved. This copyright protects
Starhawk's right to future publication of her work. Nonprofit, activist, and
educational groups may circulate this essay (forward it, reprint it, translate
it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit uses. Please do not change any part
of it without permission. Readers are invited to visit the web site: www.starhawk.org.
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